On a Train

Justin E. H. Smith

Gargantua21171707680 It's Sunday afternoon, I'm on a so-called bullet train from Lyon to Paris, tomorrow's the Pentecost, Abbas was a bit late in getting me the reminder that I'm 'up this Monday', our trusty editor-in-chief claiming that this has been a 'weird week', and for the life of me I can't think of anything to write about. To tell the truth, it's been a weird week for me too. For one thing, I've been travelling, and when I'm travelling the ordinary functioning of my vegetative soul (which recent authors have started calling 'the autonomic nervous system') breaks down entirely. That is to say that the peristaltic motion of my intestine (which used to be an adjective meaning both 'internal' and 'internecine', and was often brought up in connection with the English civil war) switches from the biological to the geological clock, and meanwhile I start to feel like a basalt-plugged volcano.

But I'm opposed to everything the word 'gonzo' stands for, so I can't just crank out some typo-filled incoherent bullshit about n'importe quoi (already I feel uncomfortable with the dangling 'about' and 'for' I've managed to let slip by). In Marseille a few days ago I had wanted to write something about the way fashion is best analyzed not as a national phenomenon, but as a sea-based phenomenon –fashion being not haute couture, but just the general way people look, perhaps something not entirely unrelated to the lost art and science of physiognomy–, the basic fashion zones of the world being the Aegeo-Adriatico-Mediterranean, the Sargasso-Caribbean, the Balto-Norwegian, the Michigano-Ontarian, and the Pacific Rim. But then we left Marseille and I was no longer seeing so many Ed Hardy-bedecked goons, whom I had taken to calling 'meatheads', and even, in my own private French, têtes de viande (which in turn made me think of the Roma beggar-woman I saw at the Place de Clichy eating pâté de tête or headcheese with her fingers, straight from the plastic packaging), so that idea for an essay just sort of evaporated. I next thought about writing something on the future of that ill-defined activity we call 'writing' in the age of social networking, as if anyone needed to see more of that sort of stuff.

I had also been reflecting on my experience, around 1989, as a parking-lot attendant/security guard during week-long Grateful Dead concerts at the California Exposition and State Fair Grounds in Sacramento, when, for reasons I could never entirely explain, I cultivated a distinctly martial look, including a buzz-cut and a bomber jacket. So stern and warrior-like was I that when I attempted to inform some band of merry travellers that they could not park their bus here, or vend their friendship bracelets and ramen noodles there, I was not entirely unused to hearing the half-fraternal, half-aggressive reply: “Just smoke a fuckin' fatty, you fuckin' Nazi” (I hate to have to drop my terminal 'g's, even in quotation, but I assure you that is what they said and how they said it).

It was not this memory that made me think my time at Cal Expo worth relating, though, nor yet the obligatory membership in the Teamsters that went along with this job, which first opened my eyes to the dreariness and conventionality of labor unions, and permanently transformed me from a romantic revolutionary into an ambivalent would-be revolutionary. Rather, it was the conversations with my evangelical Christian co-worker, in the parking lot at the Grateful Dead concerts, when Jerry Garcia was still alive, and was not yet memorialized in the name of an ice-cream flavor, and the figure of the 'old hippie' was already familiar, but the figure of the geriatric hippie, or the senescent hippie, was still something quite rare: it was these conversations, with this evangelical Christian whose name I've forgotten but whose face and voice I still know like my own, that I so wanted to recount.

We would stroll through the makeshift stalls of 'Shakedown Alley' (I believe it was called), where the Deadheads sold the trinkets that earned them the money to continue on to the next concert site (this could not have been an entirely closed economy; there were surely some parental subventions and lines of trustafarian credit flowing in as well). My Christian friend would survey the revelry, the hackey-sacking and the guitar-playing, the blissful living-for-today that I have since learned to associate more with Renaissance literature than with the vestiges of the 1960s; he would survey all this, and declare: “At bottom, what all of this is, is Satanism.”

Now I remember this, while I do not remember a hundred thousand other conversations I had with other would-be revolutionaries, because this was one of the rare occasions in my early life when I heard a judgment coming from someone operating with meaningful categories of analysis, with opinions grounded in beliefs grounded in the supposition of a metaphysical order that assigned a distinct and real value to every creature and deed. I replied: “That's silly, it's not Satanism, it's just idiots trying to have fun.” It's an aesthetic failure, I said, or attempted to say, not a moral failure, still less a failure that could be of any interest to the beings you believe to inhabit the supernatural order. My Christian friend said something, in turn, about how Satan's greatest trick is to convince men that he does not exist, and that it is enough for an activity to qualify as worship of the Evil One that it be a sort of revelry in pleasure, and the body, and nature, that it involve a turning away from the one true source of happiness in this life, God. The neopaganism of the 1960s, for him, like the rebirth of the pagan gods in the Renaissance that gave us Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, amount to the recrudescence of that very force that the Christianization of the West was supposed to squelch.

Now I do not mean it at all as a denunciation of this force when I say that, now, upon further reflection, I believe my Christian friend had it exactly right. What we witnessed when we walked down Shakedown Alley really was Satanism, true Satanism (the Satanism that styles its object of worship in a more literal way, such as Anton La Vey's so-called church, inevitably ends up appearing as mere parody). My Christian friend had available to him categories of judgment that enabled him to discern features of the world to which my non-committal liberal upbringing left me blind.

Now it appears that willy-nilly (which does not mean 'half-assed', but is in fact an Anglicization of volens-nolens) I have, after just a few sentences of fumbling around and trying to get my bearings, begun to write about my time as a parking-lot attendant at Grateful Dead concerts, and about the inherent Satanism of the Deadhead movement. But what I had wanted to get to (and I apologize for that dangling 'to', but the canola fields, which used to be called 'rapeseed' fields, have now turned to banlieue and I fear that Paris is approaching, or rather that I am approaching Paris) was that great Satanic author, Rabelais.

I tried reading Rabelais ten years or so ago, when my French was much worse than it is now, and I gave up on page 2 or so, around the third appearance of the archaic word oncque. I recently grew determined to give Rabelais another try when I learned of Laurence Sterne's great admiration for his French forerunner, and when I made the constatation that over the past ten years my appreciation for things archaic has grown immensely.

O my friends, if you, too, should wish to read Rabelais, do not settle for a version in modernized French, let alone in translation. If French is not an option, then read the earliest available English translation, which, one might hope, will approximate, or counterfeit, as they used to say, the original strangeness. Any attempt to make Rabelais less strange, and here I mean 'strange' as in étrange, which is to say both queer and foreign, is an attempt to remove everything that makes him worth reading, every drop of sustantificque mouelle or 'substantifickal marrow' from Rabelais's strange bones. In just the first few pages, which I do not entirely understand, but which give me infinitely more pleasure than an updated version that I would understand, I have been delighted to see a poor fellow's physiognomy described as caseiforme, which brings us from headcheese to cheeseheads. I have been overjoyed to see Rabelais describing the conjugation of newlyweds as la beste à deux doz, the legendary two-backed beast, which is in fact composed of two people joyeusement se frotans leur lard [joyfully rubbing their lard]. And what of Gargamelle's feast on the tripe of a hundred bulls, where our narrator imagines the belle matiere fecale que doivoit boursouffler en elle! Intestines within intestines! The within within the within!

I don't know quite how to translate boursouffler, but it does not seem entirely remote from my present condition. Maybe if I knew how to pray it would not come to this, or had a God greater than Gargantua (who is not a god at all, but only a giant), or took as sacred those texts that deal with the soul rather than the most base organs of the body. But the train is pulling into the Gare de Lyon at this very moment, and –though I think I technically live in Canada, somehow– Paris, for now, is as much home as anywhere.

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.